Signing off from the money beat
Much has changed in the world of finance in the last two years and I've been lucky enough to cover that change. Now, after writing almost three quarters of a million words on over 1,200 posts, I'm moving on to tackle a challenge that's simply too good to turn down – but which has to stay under wraps for now.
It seems a good chance to take stock of what's changed during a time when AOL Money itself has seen steady development.
I started off doing the early morning round-up of the stock market news – picking stories from the wire as the day's company reports went live. For all the talk of crisis, most of the big names I reported on continued to make a profit – but on the stock market it's not how much profit you make that keeps shareholders happy, it's how much more profit you made over last year.
That stint confirmed what I suspected – that the stock market is more about confidence than actual production or performance. Supergroup, the company behind the increasingly ubiquitous Superdry brand, has been a notable success story – but even it is under pressure from shareholders expecting stellar growth every quarter.
Business of sportI covered the business of sport during my stint too, much of which involved a roll call of clubs in crisis. These were tales of unpaid bills, staff working without wages and wannabee owners making grand claims that proved to be thinner than the paper on the cigarettes inside the boxes the business plans seemed to have been written on the backs of.
What's apparent is that football, which likes to claim it is like any other business, needs to be regulated like any other business – although more on that later. We need more transparency in club ownership, and some deeper change that does not incentivise every club to spend beyond their means to achieve success only a few can get.
There were bigger issues covered too – such as the real impact of large sporting events such as the South African World Cup or next year's London Olympics on national economies. And there was the ongoing story of corruption allegations within football's world governing body FIFA.
Underlying it all was the modern conundrum of sport. Sport brings pleasure to millions because it represents, at its best, pure achievement through genuine competition. That's why business wants to be associated with it. But as sport becomes more of a business – aided by the apparently unbreakable brand loyalty of fans – sport faces a problem.
To be successful in business, you have to do all you can to be winner. But the pull of sport is based on the fact that no one knows who the winner is before the game is played. As sports businesses try to minimise the chances of failure, so they risk undermining their very essence.
Technological changeI also covered technology, particularly digital media and mobile technology – and saw a similar conundrum unfolding. The rise of Apple to be the world's most valuable brand was the big story. But the last two years have also seen the continued rise of Google and Amazon and the growing influence of the search industry – all of which were covered.
We looked at the big picture trends, at how traditional media was adapting its business model to the digital challenge, and profiled a number of small companies at the forefront of forging the new digital landscape. And we looked at the way technology was changing consumer behaviour.
At every point, content was the key. People buy devices and sign up to services because – ultimately – they want the content. And they want good content. But content costs, the various industries that depend on it want to drive the cost down, and consumers are less willing to pay. And so the risk of cutting off the supply of the very thing needed to sell products grows. Solving the content conundrum is a key challenge.
But one change has dominated, and in doing so provides hope in dark and dangerous economic times. After years of neoliberal consensus, alternatives are being advanced. The emergence of the UK Uncut movement has succeeded in popularising an issue that Labour was unable – or unwilling – to do during 13 years in power. Tax evasion.
Alternatives emergeMainly young and largely unaffiliated, the Uncutters emerged in response to what they saw as a basic problem. We were not 'all in this together'. While the many paid tax but saw the benefits it should bring cut back, the few dodged and dealt in order to avoid tax while raking in more benefit.
The Uncutters connected with the public mind, and in doing so connected also with the work of campaigners such as the Tax Justice Network, Richard Murphy and Nicholas Shaxson. Their work, on the negative effects of tax havens and the tax gap, had been around for some time, but it was complex stuff.
Now, suddenly, people were interested. That took by surprise a media that assumed ordinary people were too stupid and dulled to get to grips with such complex arguments. The BBC still hasn't worked out the new ground – with a few honourable exceptions such as Paul Mason.
The politicians and their paymasters too have been surprised. Compared to two years ago, there is now a huge level of engagement from the general public in complex economic arguments. The establishment view is being challenged, the role of the City of London openly questioned and the Coalition revealed as leaving the bridge as the ship heads towards the rocks. After first locking the course in.
Biting backAs I write, New York police are forcibly breaking up the Occupy Wall Street camp that spawned a global wave of protest – including the camp at St Paul's in London. In Italy and in Greece the people are governed by unelected Prime Ministers. In cities around the world the signs of a crackdown on protest are ominous.
When I began to work on AOL's money site, we had the idea that we could make a financial site lively and engaging and in doing so promote real discussion. I've had the enormous luck to work with a great team of writers and editors who have been willing to experiment and to think laterally.
We've covered a lot of ground, and hopefully shown that – even as one of the major media scandals of all time unfolds – that good journalism can make a difference. Personally, I faced accusations that my journalism is not good but 'biased' on more than one occasion. But I've always made clear where my views come from, and declared an interest when I had one.
We have, I hope, challenged the idea that economics is a pure science – that idea pushed by neoliberalism as a way of closing down dissent. And I hope we've shown not only how business and economics not only reaches into all aspects of life, but can be shaped and changed by the people it should serve.
What's been most encouraging is the growth of debate, and good debate at that, on the comments threads. The community of readers is a vital component of any modern media brand, and AOL Money seems to be going from strength to strength. Long may it continue.